Life of banana tree

Bananas: From the Bunch to Your Breakfast

Where do bananas come from?

Bananas originated in the Malay Archipelago in Southeast Asia. Today they are grown in tropical regions across the globe, from South and Central America to India, China and Africa.

Bananas grow in hot, tropical climates. Banana plants look like trees but are actually giant herbs related to lilies and orchids. The plant grows from a root clump (rhizome), similar to a tulip bulb. There are over 500 types of bananas! People cultivate mostly cooking bananas and plantains (the starchy cousins of the sweet banana). Over 500 million people depend on the banana trade to support themselves and their families.

Banana plants at a farm in Costa Rica

Photo credit: Anna Clark

The dessert banana, also called the Cavendish, is the most popular type of banana in North America and Europe. When Americans were introduced to bananas in the 1880s, they were considered an exotic luxury and eaten with a knife and fork. Today, the average person in the U.S. eats more than 75 bananas a year. Tarantulas like to hide in banana leaves.

Banana plants grow quickly and can reach their full height of 20-40 feet in only 9 months. After growing for about 6-8 months, the plant develops a nice crown of leaves. Then a flowering stem emerges from the top, and a large bud begins to develop.

As the bud unfolds, it reveals double rows of tiny flowers. Each of these flowers will become an individual banana, or a “finger.” Each row of bananas is call a “hand” and is made up of 14 to 20 fingers. Each stem grows 9 to 12 hands, which means that a single banana plant can produce up to 240 bananas.

Flowering banana plant

Photo credit: Radim Schreiber

Bagging the Fruit

Farm worker bagging bananas on a banana farm in Costa Rica.

About 14 days after the stem has emerged, the weight of the growing bananas causes the stem to hang upside down. At this stage, many farmers cover the fruit with a bag to help protect it from insects and sun damage. Farmers also support the plant by tying it to neighboring plants with twine. This helps prevent the plant from toppling over from the weight of the bananas.

About 12 weeks after bagging, the green-colored fruit is ready to harvest. In order to harvest the bananas, one worker cuts the stem from the plant while another stands underneath to catch the falling stem on his shoulder. After one growth cycle, the banana plant will be cut down and a new plant will grow from the root clump (rhizome) left behind.

Once cut from the plant, the bananas are carried to the processing plant by horse or by workers.

After harvest, the plastic bags are recycled on Rainforest Alliance certified banana farms.

Processing

Worker washing bananas

At the processing plant, workers remove bananas from their stems by hand and break them into smaller clusters. The workers must be very careful to cut neatly and accurately in order to prevent breaking the skin, which can cause rotting.

The workers submerge the bananas in large tanks of cold water. The cool water lowers the temperature of the bananas and washes off sap and latex from the cut stems.

Next, the bananas get stickers. Workers carefully pack the bananas in boxes so they do not bump against each other. This helps to minimize bruising before they arrive at their destination.

Worker packing bananas into boxes for shipment.

Photo credit: Rob Goodier

Finally, the boxes are carefully loaded into refrigerated ships, called reefers. The ship’s storage area is kept cold enough to prevent the bananas from ripening, a technique called “putting the bananas to sleep.”

Upon arrival, the bananas are placed into ripening rooms for 3 to 8 days before being brought to the markets. The bananas are loaded into a truck and shipped off to be offered to banana lovers on grocery shelves.

Rainforest Alliance Certification

Banana farmers that wish to be certified through the Rainforest Alliance must are required to:

  • Protect ecosystems
  • Conserve water, soil and forests
  • Provide decent working conditions for all workers, safety training and protective equipment
  • Maintain positive relationships with local communities
  • Establish an integrated system of waste management

First of all, did you know that bananas aren’t grown on trees? Yep, banana plants are actually perennial herbs grown from a large rhizome (a stem that sends out roots and shoots from its nodes), much like ginger, heliconias and bird-of-paradise flowers. What looks like a trunk is actually a pseudostem, formed by leaves layered around each other. New leaves begin growing below the ground, pushing through the middle of the plant and emerging at the crown. New suckers grow from the rhizome, also called a corm. These can be can be removed and planted elsewhere or left to replace the mother plant after fruiting.

Banana plants can grow over five metres tall but home and garden varieties usually grow around two to four metres in height.

Varieties

There are two main varieties of bananas grown in Australia – Cavendish and ladyfinger. Cavendish bananas account for over 90 percent of Australian production and includes varieties such as Hybrids, Williams, Mons or Dwarf Cavendish. The lady finger banana is popular in certain regions such as Brisbane.

Banana plants thrive in tropical or subtropical climates, however they can handle cooler temperature if cared for correctly. Growth will stop when temperatures drop below 15˚C but will begin again once it warms up.

Aspect

Choose a north-east to northerly aspect when growing a banana plant.

“When planting a banana plant, find a warm, frost free and wind protected space, that preferably receives at least six hours of sunshine per day,” Yates Horticulture Consultant Angie Thomas says.

If you’re growing a banana tree in a cooler climate, plant it in a sheltered location near a northerly facing wall.

Soil

Banana plants like rich, well-drained soil with reliable moisture. They can tolerate all but sandy soil.

Planting

The right time to plant is in spring and summer. Prepare your soil in advance by incorporating plenty of compost or manure and irrigate thoroughly a few days prior to planting. If you’re growing a few banana plants, place them around four metres apart. When planting, create a raised mound around the banana to improve drainage around the roots.

“It’s important to keep the soil consistently moist so it’s helpful to apply plenty of mulch,” Angie says.

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Watering

Ensure soil is moist but not soaked. Check the topsoil before watering – if the top inch is dry, slowly and deeply water the plant. On average you can expect to do this every couple of days during the warmer months.

Fertiliser

“Banana plants are very nutrient hungry and require a potassium enriched plant food,” Angie says. “Apply the plant food around the root zone every eight weeks from spring to early autumn and you’ll promote healthy leaf growth and encourage lots of fruit.”

A banana plant takes approximately nine months to mature and produce fruit however it is important to manage the process. Each cluster of bananas is called a “hand” and each individual banana is called a “finger”. The entire stem containing several hands (and many fingers) is called a bunch.

“I recommend covering the entire fruiting stem of bananas with a large open ended bag once the fruit moves from being downward to upward facing,” Angie says. “This will help deter flying foxes, possums and birds from eating the bananas.”

You may have to prop your plant or bunch as the fruit grows heavier to prevent it falling over.

It’s also worth spreading out the harvest season so you aren’t left with bunches of ripe bananas at one time.

“You can harvest individual hands of bananas before they are ripe and allow them to ripen further indoors,” Angie says.

If you’re letting your bananas ripen on the tree, they will be ready to be picked when the little flowers on the end are dry and rub off easily.

Pruning

“Once a banana plant has fruited it will die, however there should be multiple suckers to take its place,” Angie says. “Remove all apart from two or three of the strongest suckers.”

If bananas are left to produce too many suckers it will reduce the yield of the plant as they can sap energy from the main stem. Excess suckers can be re-planted in pots or in your garden. It’s also important to remove any dead or damaged foliage to reduce risk of fungal infection. Use this foliage as compost.

There are a number of pest problems and diseases that can affect banana plants and biosecurity is a huge issue for the Australian banana industry. Nematodes, weevils, and thrips are the most common pests while anthracnose, rhizome soft rot, banana leaf rust, leaf speckle and crown rot are common diseases. Serious diseases luke bunchy top and panama disease have been known to wipe our entire farms and are closely monitored by authorities.

Propagation

“If you already have a banana plant growing in your yard, as they mature they will start to develop suckers that can be gently dug up and removed from the parent plant when the stems are around five centimetres thick,” Angie says. “These small plants can then be planted in a different spot in the garden.”

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How to grow

Bananas don’t produce seeds so to begin with you need to find a “sucker” you can purchase one of these but the easiest way to get your hands on one of them is to find a friend with a banana plant of their own.

Make sure you get a good chunk of corm and many roots with it. Chop the top off the sucker to reduce evaporation while you move it and while it settles into its new home. (Remember, the growing point is at the bottom of a banana plant. You can decapitate the sucker. It will grow back.)

  1. Cut the sucker off from a larger plant using a sharp knife or shovel. Chop the top off the sucker to reduce evaporation.
  2. Plant your sucker in a 50cm deep hole of moist, well-drained soil.
  3. They don’t require much maintenance so water every so often. You should start to see flowers within six months and grow fruit in approximately nine months time.

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Types of bananas

The two most common varieties of bananas in Australia are Cavendish and Lady Finger.

Cavendish

Cavendish accounts for just over 90 per cent of all bananas in Australia and includes subcategories such as Hybrids, Mons and Dwarf Cavendish. They are generally available year-round but are their prices have been known to fluctuate Cavendish bananas account for over 90 per cent of Australian production and includes varieties such as Hybrids, Williams, Mons or Dwarf Cavendish.

You can discover a list of all of our favourite banana recipes here.

Lady Finger

Characterised by their small fruits, Lady Finger bananas are sweeter than Cavendish and are mostly grown outside of Brisbane.

Climate

Banana trees thrive in warm tropical climates with at least 50% humidity which is why they mostly grow in the northern half of Australia. These enjoy sunny positions and don’t like it when temperatures dip below 15C. You can grow bananas indoors they’ll just need around twelve hours of direct sunlight each day.

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Harvesting

It will take around nine months for a banana tree to produce fruit. Each cluster of bananas is called a “hand” and each individual banana is called a “finger”. The entire stem containing several hands (and many fingers) is called a bunch. If you choose to let your bananas ripen on the tree, they will be ready to be picked when the little flowers on the end are dry and rub off easily.

Watering and feeding

These plants can withstand a bit of water and generally like to be kept wet but not moist. To help them thrive make sure you fertilise them every two months with a potassium-rich fertiliser

Pests and diseases

Unfortunately bananas are extremely susceptible to pests and diseases which is why in some cases transporting and transplanting them is illegal. The most common pests include weevils, nematodes and thrips. Common banana diseases include banana leaf rust, rhizome soft rot and Panama disease which if poorly managed can wipe out whole farms.

Banana plants

It didn’t get cold enough this winter to kill the trunks of banana trees. Trim only damaged leaves, not the trunk, if you want the trees to flower and produce fruit.

(NOLA.com|The Times-Picayune archive)

QUESTION: Should I cut my banana trees back to the ground now? They look terrible. — John Lester

ANSWER: If you want your trees to flower and produce fruit, only trim off the damaged leaves and do not cut back the trunk. It didn’t get cold enough this winter to kill the trunks.

The flower stalk originates from the growing point that is down near ground level. It must then travel up from the ground through the inside of the trunk and come out the top to bloom. It takes a couple of growing seasons for this to happen.

For banana trees that have not yet bloomed, the flower stalks are somewhere in the trunks now. If you cut the trunks, you destroy the flower stalk.

You may cut back any banana trees that produced a bunch of bananas last summer. Cut them to the ground now since they will not produce any more new growth.

When to trim leaves from banana tree

Q. Could you tell me when to trim leaves from a banana tree? Is it true that once a banana tree bears fruit, it will never bear fruit again?

— L.W., Kingwood

A. Although we speak of banana trees, bananas are large, clumping, herbaceous plants that grow from an underground corm. What we usually call the trunk is actually a “pseudostem,” a collection of leaf bases bound together to form the trunklike structure. As the plant grows, new, tightly rolled leaves push up through this pseudostem, then pop open to display their long, broad surfaces. Banana leaves may be 3 to 10 feet in length and 2 to 4 feet wide.

Once a pseudostem has reached a certain maturity, a flower structure emerges. The flower spike contains several large, colored bracts; from these, small flowers emerge.

When a trunk is about to flower, you may see a leaf less than a foot long emerging from a flattened stem. This is known as a “flag.” Then the bracts will begin to form. These are tightly closed and resemble a big pink or maroon bud. As the bracts begin to lift, you will see the fingers, or fruit, on edible types as well as on some ornamentals.

Those growing edible bananas may find that a stem can produce several hands, or clusters, of the fingerlike fruit. Let fruit remain until the ridges on the bananas begin to round off and there is a hint of yellow. Then cut the entire stem with the fruit and ripen in a warm room indoors. You can hang the stem on a large hook.

Yes, a pseudostem blooms only once and is removed after fruiting. New plants, or suckers, will emerge from the corm.

When a sucker on an edible banana is given approximately 18 months to mature without freeze damage, it likely will produce fruit. Often, however, bananas freeze to the ground. While we do get new growth from the hardy rootstock, we can protect the trunks during the winter and get fruit, if desired.

Prune damaged leaves once we’re out of danger of frost.

Give bananas as much room as you can in the garden. Roots spread. If a clump begins to look bare, transplant new shoots (with roots) before they become too large to dig and rearrange. It is recommended that those growing bananas for fruit allow one or two vigorous shoots to develop, flower and fruit and keep the other suckers nipped back.

A Guide to Banana Plant Care You’ll Wish You Had Found Sooner

Banana plants are mainly grown for their nutritious fruits. This herbaceous plant can be grown indoors and outdoors, if the necessary growth conditions are provided, and the plant is properly taken care of.

The name ‘banana’ is used both for the herbaceous plant and the fruits, produced by it. Banana plants are native to Southeast Asia, and are actually not trees. What appears to be the trunk, is a pseudostem, i.e., a false stem, made with concentric layers of tightly packed leaf sheaths.

Banana is the largest herbaceous flowering plant, which is mainly grown for its delicious fruits, though a few banana plants are also grown as ornamental plants, for their spirally arranged beautiful leaves and showy flowers.

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Musa acuminata, and Musa balbisiana are the progenitors of almost all the modern bananas, cultivated for their seedless edible fruits. Musa × paradisiaca, a widely grown banana plant, is a hybrid between Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. On the other hand, Musa coccinea (scarlet banana), Musa velutina (pink banana), and Musa ornata, are the most commonly grown ornamental banana plants.

If you are considering to grow banana in your yard or as a houseplant, then the most important thing to keep in mind is that, this tropical plant requires plenty of sunlight, moisture, and a warm environment.

Plant Description

Banana is a rapidly growing herbaceous plant, with a strong and sturdy stem or stalk. The stalk is actually a pseudostem, which emerges from the underground rhizome or corm.

The pseudostem can reach a height of about 20 to 25 feet, with spirally arranged leaves. The leaves are broad and can spread up to 60 cm, while reaching a length of about 2.6 meters.

In the flowering season, a cluster of flowers can be found in the stalk, that remains covered with purplish bracts. As the fruiting season arrives, banana fruits grow in a hanging cluster, which is termed as a bunch. Soon after fruiting, the stalk dies and the next year, a new stalk grows from the corm.

How to Care for a Banana Plant

Site Selection

Banana plant care begins with the selection of a proper planting site. As mentioned already, it is a tropical plant and therefore, needs a lot of sunlight to thrive. So, choose a location that receives bright sunlight for about 12 hours in a day. Banana plants are very sensitive to sunlight and excessive intense sunlight during the summer days can burn them. So, if you have planted your banana plant in a place that receives lots of sunlight, protect the leaves by providing shade during summer.

You can also cover the fruits with a light cloth, to protect them from intense sunlight. The planting area should be large enough, so as to accommodate the size of a full-grown, mature plant. It is better to choose a wind-protected, sheltered area for planting it, if you don’t want its leaves to be torn apart by the wind. However, shredded leaves are not harmful for the plant and so, they need not be removed.

Soil Preparation

The next step is to prepare the soil. Well-drained and fertile soils, rich in organic matter, are ideal for growing banana plants. Soils that retain enough moisture, but at the same time, do not stay wet for a long time, can be considered the best type of soil for growing this plant. The soil pH should be between 5.5 to 7 for the healthy growth of a banana plant.

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To prepare the soil for planting banana plant, first remove any weed and plant from the planting site.

After weeding, prepare the soil by applying organic matter, such as compost.

Be sure to water the site for a few days, prior to planting the banana plant.

Planting Banana

After preparing the soil for planting, mound the soil up and dig a hole, which should be about 100 mm deeper than the pot that contained the plant. The diameter of the hole should be about 50cm.

Organic Compost

You can add organic or inorganic fertilizer at the bottom, only if it is required. But, be sure to use only the recommended amount, as an excess of fertilizer may burn the roots.

After adding the compost to the soil, soak the root ball in water and massage it with one hand, after which place it in the hole and shovel some soil around the plant. Now, pat the soil around the base firmly. If the soil is dry, then water the plant.

Mulching

Banana plants require heavy mulching, which helps retain water and moisture, inhibit the growth of weeds, and acidify the soil. When mulch breaks down, it releases nitrogen into the soil. You can use any vegetative waste, such as leaves, wood or bark chips, and even old banana leaves and the pruned off stalks of banana plant, as compost. However, dried leaves of oak tree are excellent for mulching banana plants, as this mulch is slightly acidic in nature.

The banana plant needs regular watering, but make sure that it does not sit in water. Standing water can rot the root of this plant. The best way is to check the top soil, before watering the banana plant. If the top inch of soil is dry, then water the plant. Banana plants grown in wet and shady places, require less water than those grown in sunny places. The water requirement of this plant will be less during the winter days.

Desuckering

Banana Sucker

Suckers are the new growths arising from the base of the plant or its roots. In case of banana plants, suckers may develop quite early, but it is important to control the population of suckers, if you want to get bigger bunches and healthier plants.

The suckers that appear before the mother plant reaches a height 2 m, should be cut off at the ground level, as they develop from a shallow point under the base of the mother plant.

The sucker that is suitable for the next crop is the sword sucker, which can be distinguished by its thin sword-like leaves. Such sword suckers emerge from a deeper point and hence, they are more stable. The suckers having fat leaves are water suckers, which usually do not produce healthy and big bunches of bananas.

The sucker that is suitable for your next crop is usually the one, that emerges approximately 5 months, after planting the mother plant. It is better to limit the number of pseudostem to three, one large, one medium-sized, and one baby pseudostem, if you want to encourage proper fruiting.

Fertilization

Fertilizers can be applied throughout the growing season. This fast growing plant needs a lot of nutrients. You can use both inorganic, as well as organic fertilizers for your banana plant. You can also use compost and well-composted manure. Potassium is very important for banana plant and so, a fertilizer high in potassium and comparatively low in nitrogen, is ideal for this plant. A balanced fertilizer can also be used, but the amount of nitrogen should be reduced at the time of flowering.

Banana plants need occasional pruning. So, remove the dead bottom leaves, when they turn brown. The dead banana leaves should be cut back to within a few inches of the main stalk. After harvesting, the pseudostem can be cut down to the ground.

Flowering Plant Care

Banana Flower

Depending on the climate, a banana plant may take 9 months to a year, to produce flowers. In tropical climates, it usually takes place within 9 months from planting. The flowers normally appear between April to June, in a long pendulous stalk. The first clusters are female flowers, which develop into clusters of fruits called hands. Several tiers of hands appear on the stalk, and together they are called a bunch. The inflorescence contains many purple-colored bracts between the rows of flowers.

After the emergence of several hands (fruits), the stalk will continue to grow, but produce only male flowers, which are sterile. The female flowers are those found near the leaves, above the stalk, while the male flowers appear down the stalk. After the appearance of the last hand, you can cut down the flower stalk just below the bunch of developing bananas. It is also recommended to remove the bottom rows of hands, which are much smaller than the other hands, as they are more likely to wilt.

When the banana fruits start growing in size, you can protect the bunch from birds and squirrel by covering it with a plastic sack. This will also help retain heat and ethylene oxide released by the fruit, which in turn, will promote ripening. Tie the sack round the bunch stem and be sure to keep the bottom end open, or make holes at the bottom.

Usually, the fruits take four to six months to grow fully.

The fruits should be harvested when they reach the full size, but are still green. They may split, If left to ripen on the stalk. The fruit stalk should be cut close to the main stalk and then hung in a warm and shady place, till the bananas ripen.

Winter Care

As winter approaches, your banana tree will need some extra care and protection. The ideal temperature for growing banana plant is 79 to 82 degree Fahrenheit, while the growth of the plant comes to a halt at about 50 degree Fahrenheit. The plant parts above the ground can die at a temperature below 28 degree Fahrenheit. During winter, the banana plant should be watered less frequently. Keeping the ground moist is enough during this period. Fertilization is usually not required during winter.

If place where banana is planted gets light frost, you can wrap or cover the main stalk with a blanket or plastic mesh. Before covering the plant, check for the presence of pest and remove all the leaves. Now, wrap the stalk with the mesh or blanket, leaving some space around the stalk. Fill this space with dried leaves or straw and secure the mesh or blanket with strings. Now, add mulch around the base of the main stalk, in order to insulate it from cold.

If your banana plant has produced fruits and you have harvested them, then you can cut down the stalk to the ground and then cover it with mulch, to protect the root or corm from winter.

Caring for Indoor Banana Plant

If you want to grow banana as a houseplant, then it is better to opt for a dwarf variety, as normal varieties can grow really big, to be accommodated inside your house.

To grow a banana plant inside, first of all you will need a pot, large and deep enough to accommodate its roots. The soil should be fertile with pH levels between 5.5 to 7, and also well-drained.

Like outdoor banana plants, an indoor plant also requires bright sunlight for about 12 hours. So, keep it in a place that receives enough sunlight.

Indoor banana plants need hot and humid conditions to thrive properly. The ideal temperature for growing this houseplant is 80 degree Fahrenheit during the day and about 67 degree Fahrenheit in the night.

Indoor banana plants would also require lots of water during the growing season. But, standing water can rot the root. So, ensure proper drainage for the bananas grown in pots, and allow the top inch of soil to dry before watering. Misting should be done regularly to keep them well-hydrated, and also to remove dust from the surface of the leaves.

During summer, the banana plant can be moved outdoor. But, during winter, it should be brought inside to protect it from cold, especially when the temperature falls below 28 degree Fahrenheit. For moving the plant easily, you can use a rolling stand.

Like outdoor plants, the indoor banana plants can be fertilized during the growing season, usually while watering the plants.

By growing banana plants, you can add that exotic tropical aura to your landscape. Apart from being a beautiful plant with lush green foliage, a banana plant produces fruits, that not only have a delectable taste, but are also known for their nutritional value. So, you can grow banana plants, both for their ornamental value, as well as for their delicious fruits.

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